Mr. Pink: Did you kill anybody?
Mr. White: A few cops.
Mr. Pink: No real people?
Mr. White: Just cops.
eservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Kill Bill (both volumes: 2003, 2004) are arguably the most successful (and I would say important) of the four full-length feature films that Quentin Tarantino has directed. And each is more or less explicitly about redemption.1 Further, Tarantino is widely recognized as a quintessentially postmodern neo-noir filmmaker.2 His films are postmodern in the artistic sense, insofar as they are, for example, blends of genres and highly allusive. But they’re also postmodern in terms of the underlying epistemology and the position on morality and values that they take. That is, they reflect a postmodern sensibility about our ability (or lack thereof) to know and understand the world and about the value and significance (or lack thereof) that our lives and actions have. I argue here that this postmodern sensibility undermines the characters’ attempts at redemption in the films. That is to say, in a postmodern world, such as the one depicted in Tarantino’s films, there can be no such thing as redemption. While I include discussions of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, the arguments below focus primarily on Reservoir Dogs.
First, what is redemption? In a strict religious sense, redemption refers to Christians’ salvation through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. That is, according to orthodoxy, humans are born into original sin, but God sacrificed his son (and/or himself, if you believe in the Holy Trinity) for the guilt and sin of mankind. People find salvation and redemption from sin, then, when they accept Jesus as their Lord and savior and admit their guilt. More colloquially, however, redemption can refer to any attempt by a person to change his way of living (from something bad or ignoble to something better and more worthwhile) or to make up for past wrongdoings.
Pulp Fiction, then, is primarily about the redemption of two characters, Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) and Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis).3 Jules believes that he witnesses a miracle when someone shoots at him and his partner, Vincent (John Travolta), at close range and misses. This incident compels him to want to quit being a gangster and get in touch with his spiritual self (he says that he wants to wander the earth “like Caine on Kung Fu”). Butch, on the other hand, is a boxer and double-crosses the head gangster, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), by not throwing a fight when he’s supposed to. Through a series of coincidences, Butch and Marcellus end up as prisoners in the hands of sexual perverts who are intent on raping them. Butch’s supposed redemption occurs when he is about to escape while the gangsters work over Marcellus and, instead, decides to return and save his former boss. Having thus been saved, and apparently escaping the criminal world, Butch rides out of town with his girlfriend on a chopper named “Grace”—an obvious reference to Butch’s salvation.
Reservoir Dogs is about the bloody aftermath of a botched jewel heist. Philosophically, the most important and fascinating part of the film is the remarkable opening breakfast scene, which occurs prior to the heist, in which the gangsters, all using color code names, sit around a table in a diner talking about the meaning of pop songs and the pros and cons of tipping waitresses. Mr. Brown (Quentin Tarantino) argues that Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” is about a woman who is sexually very experienced and who meets a particularly well-endowed man. When they have sex, then, it’s painful for her, thus reminding her of the first time she had intercourse. She regains that innocence through pain and suffering. It’s a reasonable enough conclusion to say that this is how we’re to interpret the rest of the film: that it’s about redemption through pain and suffering. As noted above, this is a very traditional and religious view of the matter: that it’s through Christ’s suffering and death that mankind is saved.
One of the gangsters, Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), is actually an undercover cop who has infiltrated the organization in order to bust its head, Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney). In the course of his escape from the robbery, Mr. Orange is wounded and spends the rest of the film lying on the floor of the warehouse, where most of the action takes place, bleeding profusely. Concluding that the police had to have known about the heist ahead of time, the other gangsters speculate on who betrayed them, who the “rat” in the group is. Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) staunchly defends Mr. Orange against (as it turns out correct) accusations that he, Mr. Orange, is the rat since the two of them have formed a bond in escaping together and since Mr. White witnessed Mr. Orange being wounded and has had to take care of him. I’ll suggest here that Mr. Orange plays the dual role of Judas and Christ in this tale of redemption. In the morally upside-down gangster world, he’s Judas insofar as he’s the betrayer, an undercover cop trying to bust the gang, and he’s Christ insofar as it’s through his bloody suffering that the gangsters are ostensibly redeemed. This is ironically affirmed by his bond with Mr. White, given that the color white is typically associated with innocence, and given that Harvey Keitel, who plays Mr. White, portrayed Judas in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Mr. White, then, while defending Mr. Orange throughout the film against the rat accusations, to the point of killing the gangster boss, Joe, and his son, Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn), unknowingly reflects, and holds the key to, Mr. Orange’s true identity.4
So what are Jules and Butch and the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs being redeemed from? And in what does their second innocence consist? Clearly, they desire to be redeemed from the life of the gangster. In discussing the botched heist, Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) refers to civilians (i.e., those who are neither cops nor gangsters, regular folks) as “real people.” The implication here is that cops and gangsters are not “real” people. To be redeemed, then, is, of course, to get out of the life, as Jules and Butch ostensibly did, to become a real person.
It’s interesting to note that, in Tarantino’s films, both cops and gangsters have uniforms that distinguish them from real people. Cops are dressed in typical blue uniforms, and the robbers wear the classic black suit, white shirt, thin black tie combination (this is true in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs as well as Kill Bill).5 This is not a hard-and-fast rule, however, and there are some important exceptions. For example, neither of the head gangsters in Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, Marcellus Wallace and Joe Cabot—or Nice Guy Eddie, for that matter—wear the gangster uniform, and, in Kill Bill, it’s the Crazy 88 (part of the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia) who wear it, while the DiVAS have, as assassins, different, though just as cool, uniforms (e.g., the slick yellow leather outfit worn by the Bride [Uma Thurman] in volume 1).6
In Pulp Fiction, the transformation from gangster to real person (or at least the desire therefor) is, then, symbolized by the shedding of the uniform and the donning of everyday clothes. Recall that, subsequent to their supposed experience of a miracle, Jules and Vincent are splattered with the blood of Marvin (Phil LaMarr), whom Vincent accidentally shoots. In the process of cleaning up the mess and disposing of the evidence, the two of them get rid of their gangster uniforms and put on Jimmie’s (Quentin Tarantino) clothes, T-shirts and short pants. Whether Jules succeeds in reforming and becoming a real person, we don’t know. Vincent of course has no desire to become a real person, and, in the narrative ending of the film, which is the second vignette shown, he’s back in uniform and is killed by Butch.7 Further, in Kill Bill, the Bride first attempts to shed her various cool assassin uniforms to put on a wedding dress. She is prevented from leaving the life and becoming a real person when the remaining DiVAS, at the behest of Bill (David Carradine), nearly kill her. By the end of the film, after she’s found her redemption through violence and revenge, she succeeds in becoming a real person, wearing a skirt, and taking on the role of mother.8
Like Vincent in Pulp Fiction, none of the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs desires to be a real person, and Mr. Orange seems to revel in his role as a detective while in the guise of a gangster. The characters never shed the uniform, never succeed in becoming real people. But they are redeemed from being gangsters, albeit through death.9 As I said, it’s through Mr. Orange’s suffering, his sacrifice, and Mr. White’s devotion to him as a result, that every one of them (with the possible exception of Mr. Pink, whose fate we don’t know) is killed. Likewise, Marvin Nash, the uniformed cop whom Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) kidnaps and tortures, is redeemed through death in the same way.
Critics generally categorize neo-noir films as either modernist (sometimes called neo-modernist) or postmodernist. Andrew Spicer, for example, identifies two distinct periods of neo-noir films: the modernist era, which ran from roughly 1967 to 1976, and the postmodernist period, which began in 1981 with Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat and in which we still find ourselves today. Before discussing Tarantino’s role as a postmodern filmmaker, I want to talk briefly about his modernist predecessors.
Just as classic noir films were influenced by or were a reaction to World War II, the cold war, and the dawning of the atomic age, so modernist films were, in part, a response to similarly disruptive and disillusioning events in later decades, such as the Vietnam War, the Kennedy and King assassinations, and Watergate. Further, now-classic neo-noir filmmakers, like Scorsese, Hopper, and Coppola, knew both American and European film history well and were conscious of where their work fit into that history.10
In terms of the form and content of modernist noirs, Spicer says: “[There is] in these modernist neo-noirs a self-reflexive investigation of narrative construction, which emphasizes the conventions in order to demonstrate their inevitable dissolution, leading to an ambivalence about narrative itself as a meaningful activity. The misplaced erotic instincts, alienation and fragmented identity that characterized the classical noir hero, are incorporated into a more extreme epistemological confusion, expressed through violence which is shown as both pointless and absurd.”11 Part of the outlook or sensibility of classic noir films was paranoia, pessimism, alienation, and moral ambivalence. Further, these movies had the effect of disorienting the spectator, largely through lighting, editing, oblique camera angles, etc. Modernist noirs, says Spicer, embody this same outlook or sensibility, but in a more self-conscious and deliberate way, and, further, they express an even greater “epistemological confusion” or skepticism, meaning that they question deeply our ability as subjects to know and understand the world and ourselves. This skepticism is reflected in a dissolution of narrative construction. That is, straightforward narrative lines (e.g., boy meets girl, there’s some sort of obstacle to their being together, they overcome the obstacle and live happily ever after) are abandoned in favor of more and more complex and confusing story constructions.
Just as neo-noir filmmakers are more explicitly conscious of their place in the history of filmmaking than were their classic noir predecessors, so too contemporary audiences are more “cine-literate” than earlier moviegoers. That is, viewers today have the ability to see a great many more films than people did fifty years ago, through TV, videos, and DVDs of course, but also simply because there are so many more films made each year than there were in the past, both in the United States and abroad.12 Consequently, today’s audiences are much more savvy about the history of cinema and the techniques involved in filmmaking than earlier moviegoers were. Modernist noir filmmakers, says Spicer, challenged these cine-literate audiences in a way that they’d not been challenged before: “Modernist neo-noirs abandoned the crisp fast-paced trajectory of their predecessors in favour of meandering, episodic and inconclusive stories, circling back on themselves. Above all modernist noir was self-reflexive, drawing an audience’s attention to its own processes and self-consciously referring not only to earlier films noirs, but also to the myths that underpinned their generic conventions. Neo-modernist noirs demanded a great deal from their audiences, who were challenged rather than consoled.”13 So, in addition to abandoning neatly framed and quick-paced narratives, modernist noirs refused to allow audiences one of the great pleasures of earlier moviegoing experiences (and of entertainment generally), the escape of being sucked into a seamless story, and they did this by continually reminding viewers of the techniques and artifices of filmmaking. That is, filmmakers wouldn’t allow audiences to forget that they were watching a movie: “The modernist film emphasizes the film’s formal exploration of its own medium.”14 Consequently, while disorienting the audience and expressing alienation, pessimism, paranoia, and epistemological skepticism, modernist noirs gave the audiences no neat resolutions and no comforting escape.
Tarantino is known as a postmodern filmmaker. But what does that mean, and how are postmodern noirs different from their modernist predecessors?
Arthur Danto famously proclaimed that we’ve come to the “end of art.” He prefers to use the expression posthistorical (or contemporary), rather than postmodern, believing that postmodernism is but one movement or style in the posthistorical period, though his comments about posthistorical art certainly apply to postmodernism as well. In Danto’s view, previous periods in art (Renaissance art, expressionism, impressionism, etc.) were governed by an overarching “narrative,” a story about what art should and must be in order to be art. This narrative then formed the constraints and rules according to which artists had to work. If you didn’t follow the rules, then what you were doing wasn’t art. (For example, in the nineteenth-century, you’d be laughed at for painting Campbell’s soup cans or hanging a urinal on the wall.) However, revolutionary artists who created new movements in art were able to break (some of) the old rules and create new ones, in effect writing a new narrative, a new story, about what art was supposed to be. What Danto means by the end of art, then, is not that there is no more art, that artists can no longer produce art, but, rather, that there is no longer any overarching narrative or story to tell us what art is. In effect, anything can be art. He says: “[Contemporary art] is defined by the lack of a stylistic unity, or at least the kind of stylistic unity which can be elevated into a criterion and used as a basis for developing a recognitional capacity, and there is in consequence no possibility of a narrative direction.” There is no longer any criterion by which we can recognize what is or isn’t art. There’s no “narrative direction,” no story to guide us and tell us how were supposed to make art. “There is no a priori constraint on how works of art must look—they can look like anything at all.”15 Further, given this loss of a narrative to guide artistic practice, there is also a loss of any notion of progress and improvement. That is, without a sense of what an artist is supposed to do to create art, there’s no possible criterion to say that he or she is getting better at it, more closely approximating the artistic ideal, since there is no such ideal.
So, given a lack of constraints, a lack of a story to tell them what to do, what do contemporary, or postmodern, artists do? What guides their work? As I discussed earlier, modernist films are defined, in part, by their self-referentiality, the fact that they refer to the history of filmmaking and to the techniques of filmmaking. And this kind of historical referentiality is carried on in postmodern art as well. Spicer says: “As an aesthetic style that derives from this radical relativism, postmodern cultural practices characteristically employ la mode retro, which appropriates past forms through direct revival, allusion and hybridity, where different styles are used together in a new mixture.”16 Postmodern artworks aren’t striving for some telos or ideal and improving on past movements. Rather, they reappropriate past forms by reviving or alluding to them, and they hybridize these past forms and genres into a complex mix. And this is true of postmodern neo-noirs: “The postmodern neo-noirs of the nineties are more overtly allusive and more playful in their intertextual references than the films of the eighties,” says Richard Martin.17 Spicer goes on to say: “Two basic tendencies are at work in postmodern noir, revivalism, which attempts to retain the mood and atmosphere (stimmung) of classical noir, and hybridization where elements of noir are reconfigured in a complex generic mix.”18 In postmodern neo-noirs, the noir sensibility is revived or retained, and the noir style of filmmaking is hybridized with other genres.
We can easily see now why Tarantino is considered a postmodern filmmaker. His movies are peppered with allusions to popular culture.19 Reservoir Dogs, for example, contains references to Madonna, “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” Beretta, the Silver Surfer comic books, the Get Christie Love! TV show, the Thing from the Fantastic Four comic books, and the Joel Schumacher film The Lost Boys (1987). Pulp Fiction has even more pop culture references, including those to Fonzie, Green Acres, Flock of Seagulls, Pepsi, Big Macs and Quarter Pounders, the 1970s TV series Kung Fu; Travolta’s dancing is reminiscent of his role in John Badham’s Saturday Night Fever (1977); and, of course, the Jack Rabbit Slim’s scene is full of icons like Ed Sullivan, Marilyn Monroe, and Buddy Holly.
Further, Tarantino’s movies very often reference earlier films, and they frequently blend genres in the way described above. For example, his work is highly influenced by, for example, French new wave directors such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, to the point where Tarantino named his production company “A Band Apart,” a reference to Godard’s Bande àpart (Band of Outsiders, 1964), the jewelry store in Reservoir Dogs is named “Karina’s” after the Bande à part’s star, Anna Karina, and Uma Thurman’s hairdo in Pulp Fiction is reminiscent of Karina’s.20 James Naremore says: “Reservoir Dogs bristles with allusions to Godard, Kubrick, and others.”21
Perhaps the most dramatic and extreme example of Tarantino’s allusions to other films and his hybridization of genres is Kill Bill. Volume 1 is mainly a samurai revenge story, but it has some western elements and an extended Japanese anime segment showing the childhood formation of one of the DiVAS, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). Volume 2 is mainly a western with samurai and kung fu elements, and both volumes have other genres mixed in with the main themes, particularly noir, blaxploitation, gangster, and action movies. And these are just the broader allusions, themes, and references that those of us who aren’t as schooled as Tarantino is in the history of pop culture and movies can recognize.
Often, artworks that reference popular culture do so for the purpose of criticism. That is, artists reflect on contemporary culture in order to expose inequalities or injustices inherent in that culture, for example, homophobia, sexism, racism, or the unequal distribution of wealth. Naremore, for one, claims that Tarantino’s references don’t work this way: “For all his talent, Tarantino’s ‘hypertext’ is relatively narrow, made up largely of testosterone-driven action movies, hard-boiled novels, and pop-art comic strips like Modesty Blaise. His attitude toward mass culture is also much less ironic than that of a director like Godard. In effect, he gives us Coca-Cola without Marx.”22 That is, whereas a filmmaker like Godard might make ironic references to Coke products for the purposes of a Marxist critique of capitalist society, Tarantino doesn’t mean his references to be ironic. They’re straightforward, thrown in because they’re amusing and cool. And, indeed, Tarantino’s attitude toward popular culture really does seem to be loving and affectionate. The scenes and the dialogue are, no doubt, brilliant and unforgettable—how could you not be mesmerized by the spectacle of gangsters sitting around a breakfast table discussing the meaning of a Madonna song or driving in a car talking about what fast-food items are called in Europe, at least the way Tarantino treats them? But, alas, these scenes and references lack any kind of critical element, so anyone who cares about such things will be disappointed that Tarantino’s movies at best leave social inequalities and injustices in place and untouched. We’ll see below why this is necessarily the case, given the postmodernist attitude about ethics and values implied in his films.
But postmodernism doesn’t apply just to art; indeed, the characterization of postmodern art in terms of narratives, ideals, and the abandonment of the notion of progress sketched above applies more generally to the whole postmodern era and particularly to its knowledge and truth claims, its science and philosophy. In a very influential work, Jean-François Lyotard says: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”23 That is to say, in earlier periods, our attempts to know things about the world and human existence within science and philosophy were guided (as in art) by a “metanarrative,” one of those overarching stories that gave sense and structure to our practices and made knowledge claims possible. So, in the Enlightenment, for example, we had the story about a Cartesian rationality that people possessed and an external world with a comprehensible and logical structure that could be discovered, understood, cataloged, and communicated. That is, Descartes believed that human beings were essentially rational minds attached somehow to bodies and that these minds were capable of figuring out completely how the world works. And this was the story that drove scientific and philosophical practices during the Enlightenment. It told scientists and philosophers how to go about learning about the world and human existence.
The postmodern era, however, says Lyotard, is characterized by a rejection of, or an incredulity about, any metanarrative, thus throwing doubt on our ability to know and understand the world and human existence. This leads to a radical relativism about knowledge. We’re reduced to individual perspectives about things, but there are no criteria (no metanarratives) by which to claim that one perspective is better or more accurate than another. Consequently, we can no longer really claim to know anything objectively about the world.
Richard Rorty is a contemporary philosopher who accepts this relativism. Instead of talking about narratives or stories, he uses the term vocabularies, by which he means ways of talking about things: “The contingency of language is the fact that there is no way to step outside the various vocabularies we have employed and find a metavocabulary which somehow takes account of all possible vocabularies, all possible ways of judging and feeling.” There’s no overarching vocabulary that takes into account our different ways of talking about things in our different pursuits, as poets, scientists, philosophers, politicians, etc. Thus, there are no criteria or objective standards by which to show or prove that the way a scientist or philosopher talks about the world is any more accurate or true than the way anyone else talks about it: “On this view, great scientists invent descriptions of the world which are useful for purposes of predicting and controlling what happens, just as poets and political thinkers invent other descriptions of it for other purposes. But there is no sense in which any of these descriptions is an accurate representation of the way the world is in itself.”24 Rorty is a pragmatist: different vocabularies are useful for different pursuits and practices. But he’s also a relativist: just because they’re useful doesn’t mean they’re accurate or true since we have no criteria by which to judge such a thing.
This postmodernist relativism, its skepticism about knowledge, is often reflected in postmodern art and films. In a discussion of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995), Martin says: “Postmodern esthetic constructs promote epistemological failure, constantly fragmenting the boundaries between past and present, fantasy and reality, fiction and history.”25 That is, postmodern films often blur or erase the boundaries between reality and fiction, past and present, etc., in order to make it impossible for the viewer to know with certainty what’s going on in the narrative, thus reflecting postmodern skepticism about knowledge. The Usual Suspects is a excellent neo-noir example of this. The movie shifts back and forth from present to past, and much of the story is told by Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey), sitting in a police detective’s office. However, as we find out at the end of the film, Verbal has been spinning a yarn (the story that we’ve just been watching) made up of elements that he took from around the office—signs, posters, and even the detective’s coffee mug. Consequently, we the viewers have no way of knowing whether anything we’ve been watching is true, including the suggestion at the end that Verbal is really Keyser Soze (or whether there really is any such person), given that most of what we learn about Soze is presented to us by Verbal himself in his made-up tale.
This postmodern skepticism is reflected in Tarantino’s films in a variety of ways. For example, he has a penchant for rearranging the chronological order of his narratives. They bounce back and forth in time. This happens in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill. He also often fudges the line between reality and fiction, for example, by presenting a realistic narrative but throwing in surrealistic or cartoonish elements, as when in Pulp Fiction Butch takes a cab ride and the background images, what’s sup-posed to be happening outside the cab, are obviously fake, from a different movie, or when in Kill Bill the Bride is able to perform samurai acrobatics that are physically impossible, as when she deals with the Crazy 88. Tarantino even has the real-life bank robber Eddie Bunker play one of the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs. Further, he sometimes has the story told from several different perspectives. Woods says: “[In Reservoir Dogs] cameras pan, perspectives shift—what’s out of view is just as important as what’s in shot. Reality is a subjective, ever-changing chimera.”26 And about Reservoir Dogs Tarantino says: “Part of the excitement of the movie comes from the fact you don’t quite know exactly what happened, it’s just everyone’s interpretation.” Dawson goes on to elaborate: “Thus, by not actually showing the robbery, the viewer’s only take on reality is through having each character recount his own separate version of events. Our perspective is their perspective. And each perspective is a little different.”27
Postmodern skepticism or relativism also extends to the realm of ethics and values and, hence, to the meaning and value of our lives and actions. That is to say, previously, we had an overarching narrative, or metanarrative, to tell us the meaning and value of our lives and our choices. For most people throughout human history, this story has included the idea of a god or gods. Christianity, for example, includes the story of an all-powerful creator God, who made the universe and determined the value of things, handing down commandments to Moses, directions on what to do and what not to do in order to find salvation. Within that story, then, Christians understood what was the right way to live, what was good, what ought to be done. And, again, this story includes an explanation of how to be redeemed, how to leave a life of sin and find grace.
With its rejection of all metanarratives, then, postmodernism embraces a relativism about values and morality. That is to say, there’s no longer any overarching story to tell us what’s right and wrong, good and bad, how we ought to live our lives. Thus, any action, any way of living your life, is morally equivalent to any other. There’s no god’s-eye perspective or absolute commandment to say, for example, that you shouldn’t murder people or that you should tell the truth. There are only individual perspectives about these things, but there’s no way to argue or prove that one perspective is more correct than another.
As mentioned above, Tarantino’s films are ostensibly about redemption, so they suggest that some ways of living (e.g., as a real person) are objectively better in a moral sense than other ways (e.g., as a gangster). However, because the universe that these characters inhabit is a postmodern one, their attempts at redemption are bound to fail, one way of living being, according to postmodernism, morally equal to any other way.
I’d argue that this failure is interestingly suggested (again) in the opening breakfast scene in Reservoir Dogs. The head gangster, Joe, is picking up the tab for breakfast, and he tells the others to put in for the tip. “Should be about a buck a piece,” he says. While the others offer up the cash, Mr. Pink sits there passively. Nice Guy Eddie calls him on it, insisting that he chip in. Mr. Pink refuses. He says that he doesn’t tip because he doesn’t believe in it: “I don’t tip because society says I have to. All right, if someone deserves a tip, if they really put forth an effort, I’ll give them a little something extra. But this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned, they’re just doing their job.” He says that he too worked minimum wage gigs, but, when he did, he didn’t have a job that society deemed “tipworthy.” The other gangsters are shocked at his seeming callousness (which is interesting enough in its own right, given that they think nothing of shooting people), but Mr. Pink’s refusal reveals the conventionality of our forms of life, our ways of living. Tipping is just something we take for granted. We accept it as natural, as the way things are and have to be. It’s the right thing to do. But, by pointing out the conventionality of this institution, Mr. Pink shows its arbitrariness. It’s not objectively the right thing to do. It’s simply something that we’ve decided is right, and it’s right only because most of us consider it to be so:
Mr. White: You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. These people bust their ass. This is a hard job.
Mr. Pink: So’s working at McDonald’s, but you don’t feel the need to tip them. They’re serving you food, you should tip ’em. But no, society says tip these guys over here, but not those guys over there. That’s bullshit.
If tipping were somehow objectively right, if we had some sort of metanarrative to explain its objective goodness, we’d be able to explain why we tip diner waitresses and not the people who work at McDonald’s. It’s an arbitrary convention, such that, objectively speaking, tipping a hardworking waitress isn’t any more right or good than stiffing her.
As I argued above, part of the symbolism of redemption in Tarantino’s films, part of leaving the life and becoming a real person, is the shedding of the uniform of either cop or gangster and donning the clothes of everyday folks. In Pulp Fiction, Jules’s friend Jimmie is a real person: he’s married, brews gourmet coffee in his kitchen, is worried about his wife catching him with gangsters in the house, and appreciates oak bedroom furniture. After disposing of their bloody clothes, then, Jules and Vincent put on Jimmie’s clothes, short pants and T-shirts, outfits that you might wear to play beach volleyball. Thus, symbolically, they’re on their way to becoming real people. But, when the Wolf (Harvey Keitel) asks Jimmie what they look like wearing those clothes, Jimmie quips that they look like “dorks.” (“Ha ha ha, motherfucker; they’re your clothes,” says Jules.) Thus, symbolically, the value and meaning of living a real life is undermined. Just as tipping a waitress is objectively no different or better than not tipping her, so too the only real difference between being a gangster and being a real person is that real people are dorks and gangsters are cool. One way of life is not morally superior to the other. Tarantino says: “When you first see Vincent and Jules, their suits are cut and crisp, they look like real bad-asses. . . . But as the movie goes on, their suits get more and more fucked up until they’re stripped off and the two are dressed in the exact antithesis—volleyball wear, which is not cool.”28 Indeed, in Tarantino’s postmodern world, where violence is eroticized and stylized, and where one way of life cannot be morally superior to another, if it’s a choice between being a cool gangster and being a dorky real person, who wouldn’t choose to be cool? Nobody wants to be a dork.
This essay is a chapter from The Philosophy of Neo-Noir edited by Mark T. Conard (University Press of Kentucky), copyright © 2006 University Press of Kentucky. Reprinted by permission of the publisher and author.
I’d like to thank J. J. Abrams and Bill Irwin for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
1. Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) is well made and contains many of the postmodern elements discussed below, but, on the one hand, it’s not as original or brilliant as the other three, and, on the other hand, it’s not about redemption.
2. In an interview, Tarantino denies that his films are neo-noir: “‘It’s not noir. I don’t do neo-noir,’ insists Tarantino” (Paul A. Woods, King Pulp: The Wild World of Quentin Tarantino [London: Plexus, 1998], 103).
3. In my “Symbolism, Meaning, and Nihilism in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction,” in The Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 125-35, I talk about the “transformation” of these two characters. My essay was about their attempts to see beyond postmodern nihilism. The present essay is something of a continuation of that idea, though it concludes that, in fact, they don’t (or, more accurately, can’t) succeed in escaping that nihilism.
4. Keitel believes that it’s really Mr. Orange who is seeking redemption for his betrayal of Mr. White and the other gangsters when he confesses at the end: “And Mr. Orange, who represents the law, has to seek redemption for carrying out what the law demands of him” (Woods, King Pulp, 33). I don’t think this contradicts what I’m arguing here: both cops and gangsters could need redemption from their way of life, while, at the same time, Mr. Orange might need to be redeemed from an individual act of betrayal (though, if a cop needs to be redeemed for attempting to infiltrate a gang in order to arrest the leader, this might be further evidence of the nihilism inherent in the film, as I argue below). However, since my larger argument is that there’s no possibility of redemption in a postmodern world, in the end it doesn’t matter who’s seeking redemption.
5. About Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino says: “You know, you can’t put a guy in a black suit without him looking a little cooler than he already looks. It’s a stylistic stroke. It looks like I’m doing a genre movie and my genre character’s in uniform, like Jean-Pierre Melville’s trenchcoats, or Sergio Leone’s dusters that he’d have his characters wearing. So it does have that cool jazzy thing” (Jeff Dawson, Quentin Tarantino: The Cinema of Cool [New York: Applause, 1995], 78). In his discussion of Pulp Fiction, Woods claims that it’s Lee Marvin in Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964) specifically who is “Vincent and Jules’ prototype in Pulp Fiction: the classic emotionless hitman in thin-lapelled suit and skinny tie” (King Pulp, 78).
6. It’s interesting to note that the people working at Jack Rabbit Slim’s in Pulp Fiction wear a sort of uniform as well, dressed as they are as famous pop icons. And there’s something decidedly unreal about them: they’re hollow representations of real, famous people. Vincent understands this when he refers to the restaurant as a “wax museum with a pulse.” The people working there are wax figures, not real at all. And Vincent knows this because he can identify with them as not being real; he sees himself in them. This is why he’s able to correct Mia when she mistakes Mamie Van Doren for Marilyn Monroe. (My thanks to J. J. Abrams for pointing this out to me.)
7. Recall that the movie forms a complete and coherent narrative but is chopped into vignettes and rearranged so that the end of the narrative comes in the middle of the movie.
8. Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), Budd (Michael Madsen), and even Bill also seem to have at least attempted to become real people in the four years since their attack on the Bride. Vernita is a wife and mother living in suburban Los Angeles, Budd is an alcoholic bouncer and janitor at a “tittie” bar, and Bill is playing father to his and Beatrix’s daughter. Their past catches up with them, of course, as the Bride takes her revenge, thus ultimately thwarting their attempts at redemption (or, alternatively, they’re redeemed through death, as are the gangsters in Reservoir Dogs).
9. Not an uncommon notion of redemption, historically. The Inquisition typically burned heretics, e.g., after having tortured them into confessing their supposed guilt, believing that they’d be better off dead than living as sinners.
10. Andrew Spicer says: “All these film-makers [Hopper, Coppola, Scorsese, Schrader] were steeped in film history and their films reflect a critical consciousness of both European and American film traditions. The increasingly influential notion of the auteur-director as the key creative force in film-making gave them the confidence to experiment and to see their films as vehicles for their own artistic self-expression” (Film Noir [Harlow: Longman, 2002], 135).
11. Ibid., 136.
12. Tarantino says: “There were always movie buffs who understood film and film convention, but now, with the advent of video, almost everybody has become a film expert even though they don’t know it” (Woods, King Pulp, 74).
13. Spicer, Film Noir, 148.
14. Madan Sarup, An Introductory Guide to Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 175.
Such an awareness of the art object as an art object is an important element of modern art generally, which is why these films are labeled modernist or neo-modernist. Arthur C. Danto says: “Modernism in art marks a point before which painters set about representing the world the way it presented itself, painting people and landscapes and historical events just as they would present themselves to the eye. With modernism, the conditions of representation themselves become central, so that art in a way becomes its own subject” (After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997], 7). So premodernist films are those from the golden age of Hollywood that seek to mimic real life (however faithfully), while modernist films are those we’ve been discussing, films that consciously reflect on the history and techniques of filmmaking.
15. Danto, After the End of Art, 12, 16.
16. Spicer, Film Noir, 150.
17. Richard Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls: The Legacy of Film Noir in Contemporary American Cinema (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1997), 117.
18. Spicer, Film Noir, 150.
19. “The most obvious element of Tarantino’s films is their obsessive allusions, verbally and visually, to an eclectic range of popular culture” (ibid., 171).
20. Dawson, Quentin Tarantino, 88. About the Travolta/Thurman dance scene in Pulp Fiction, Dawson reports: “To allay [Thurman’s] fears, Tarantino simply took her and Travolta to a trailer and showed them a video of Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part, with Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur doing a little synchronized jig to the juke box in a French café. Tarantino liked that scene, not because of how well they danced, but because the characters simply enjoyed doing it” (ibid., 187).
21. James Naremore, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998), 165.
22. Ibid., 218.
23. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), xxiv.
24. Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), xvi, 4.
25. Martin, Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, 124.
26. Woods, King Pulp, 37.
27. Dawson, Quentin Tarantino, 66.
28. Woods, King Pulp, 105.
is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Marymount Manhattan College. He is also the author of the novel, Dark as Night (UglyTown, 2004), co-editor of Woody Allen and Philosophy, and editor of The Philosophy of Film Noir and others in the same series.